On September 25th, the Kurdistan Region in northern Iraq will be voting in a referendum on whether to secede from the broken Mesopotamian country and achieve independence at last. The vote has stirred up controversy all over the globe–the European Union has stated that the referendum is “counterproductive”; the United Nations has gone against its own charter–which states that all nations have the right to self-determination–and urged the Kurds to back down; even the USA has said the Kurdish referendum will cause instability in the region. Unsurprisingly, the Arab League, Iran, and Turkey have all come out fiercely against an independent Kurdistan, leaving Israel as the only regional power–indeed, the only country in the world–that supports the referendum.
Masoud Barzani, the KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government) president, has said that the referendum itself is not a declaration of independence, but gives the Kurdish people more leverage in negotiations with Baghdad over the status of disputed territories that were either taken from ISIS or Arabized by the regime of Saddam Hussein. If this is the case, then why all the opposition to the referendum? The United States, Saudi Arabia, and United Nations claim that it will distract from the war against ISIS and other Sunni jihadist forces in Iraq, and elsewhere in the region. They fear that after decades of investment in Iraq after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, and after thousands of coalition forces lost their lives or were maimed in the war, the country would once again fall into sectarian violence, and render it all for naught. But in reality, the argument holds little weight. The “democratic” government in Baghdad has maintained a system of racism and discrimination against not just the Kurds, but against religious minorities and ethnic groups. Only the Kurdistan region has proven willing and able to shelter minority groups that have been targeted by Islamists. As President Barzani has stated, there has never been unity in Iraq, and there has never truly been stability in the Middle East in the modern era, unless under oppressive dictatorships.
The true reason for this opposition comes from the legacy of colonialism in the Middle East by both European and Arab powers. Roughly a century ago, France and Britain carved up the Middle East into spheres of influence known as “mandates”. Although they promised to establish an independent Kurdish state, this was never fulfilled, and instead the Kurds were trapped under European occupation and later oppressive Turkish, Iraqi, Syrian, and Iranian administrations. Both Syria and Iraq banned or restricted reference to Kurdish identity, and forbade the Kurdish language and culture from openly being used or celebrated. Resource-rich areas of historic Kurdistan were ethnically cleansed of the indigenous people of the region and replaced with Arab settlers from the southern portions of Iraq and Syria. When the Kurds in northern Iraq eventually responded to occupation and injustice with protests and uprisings, they were brutally crushed under a genocidal campaign that culminated in the gassing of Halabja.
Even though both Kurds and Arabs were betrayed and occupied by European powers (namely France and Britain) with the Sykes-Picot Agreement (and before this, as well, in North Africa), the history of the Arab Conquest and the rise of the nationalist-socialist Ba’athist Party in both Iraq and Syria meant that there could be no room for any kind of expression of pride among minorities or indigenous peoples in North Africa and the Levant that would be seen as challenging Arab dominance throughout the region. In 1948, however, things started to change. With the establishment of Israel after the British retreat from Mandatory Palestine, and the subsequent triumph of Israel in wars with its Arab enemies, Arab chauvinism and colonialism began to be challenged by a revitalized and revamped indigenous power. Though Arab countries for decades continued to talk about the “nakba” or “naksa” and refused to recognize Israel, it was more due to their hurt pride and the defeat of pan-Arab colonialism in Israel/Mandatory Palestine than any suffering the Palestinians endured. This is best exemplified by the peace treaties Egypt and Jordan signed with Israel in 1979 and 1994, respectively, along with the increasing ties between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors and the poor treatment of Palestinian refugees in Arab lands.
The establishment of an independent Kurdistan in Iraq (and perhaps beyond, if that is what the future holds) would be a “second Israel”, in the words of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. In other words, the supremacist and imperialist project that started with the Arab Conquest centuries ago and culminated with the Assad and Hussein regimes is facing a final, fatal setback. The Arab World is in tatters. Iraq has never recovered from the 2003 war economically or socially, and ISIS continues its rampage. Syria has, for all intents and purposes, ceased to be a state; it is little more than a satrapy for Iran and Russia. Israel continues to deepen ties with countries once hostile towards it as the Palestinian issue falls off the world stage and the PA and Hamas governments continue to crumble. Libya and Yemen are mired in civil war. And other native peoples of the Levant and North Africa–such as the Amazigh–are calling for more equality and an end to structural racism in the Arab World. If Kurdistan separates from Iraq, that will sound the death knell on centuries of regional domination by one ethnicity. Kurdistan has made clear that it wishes to achieve independence peacefully and has no bad intentions towards anyone in the region. However, the Iraqi government has issued violent threats against Kurdistan, particularly around the status of the disputed city of Kirkuk. If the Iraqi Army invades Kurdistan, it would almost certainly face a humiliating defeat. Iraq has been impoverished and mired in war for years, and despite training by the US, it largely fled ISIS in the earlier battles against the terror network. By contrast, the Kurds have had to make do with what little they have had throughout the past few decades, and are battle-hardened. When the national military of Iraq fled the battlefield, the Kurdish peshmerga took their place and drove ISIS into the weakened position it is in now.
The Western colonial project in the Middle East is also under threat from the Kurdish referendum on independence. The United Nations in its earliest years often adopted a Eurocentric approach–something that, while still being in place, has waned as the European Union has become frail. The former colonial powers wanted to impose their will and way of life on African and Near Eastern nations by creating artificial states and drawing the map of the region. However, doing so left opposing tribal groups in one country, often leading to poverty, dictatorship, civil wars, oppression, corruption, and genocide. This usually allowed the United States, Britain, France, and other countries in the West to profit off of arms sales to various states and groups, or to easily make use of oil and other natural resources within Iraq, Iran, the Arabian Peninsula, and other such areas. And the Kurdish people, among others, have been seen and used as “proxies” in fights with terrorists. With strong, independent nation-states like Israel (and perhaps a future Kurdistan), the West could maintain an alliance but wouldn’t have nearly as much control as it would over a weaker entity, such as a united Iraq. So far, despite the insistence of the European Union (and various individual European governments), the USA, and the UN to cancel the referendum, President Barzani has resisted and pressed on.
Simply put, the hypocrisy of the West has been exposed with this referendum, and their credibility and sway over the region has never been less influential. While the UN, EU, and US all call for the establishment of a Palestinian state, they have continued to say that the “integrity of Iraq” is sacrosanct. The West continually denounces corruption, discrimination against minorities (mainly Arabs), and “undemocratic practices” in the Kurdistan region, and claims that more institution building and economic investment is needed before even the idea of independence could take root. However, they ignore the corruption that is rampant in the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, as well as the abuses of human rights and the authoritarianism in the Territories. Calls for an independent Palestine to be immediately established with the end of “the occupation” make little sense, given that there is no unified, cohesive Palestinian government that is ready and willing to make peace with and accept Israel as the Jewish state. Calls from Palestinian leaders to destroy Israel and terrorist, racist incitement against Jewish people and minority groups go ignored by Western leaders. By contrast, Kurdistan has long been a safe haven for many minority groups that have been persecuted under Ba’athism and Sunni jihadism in both Iraq and Syria. Instead of embracing Kurdish independence while also pressing for certain reforms, the West is alienating Kurdistan and potentially pushing it towards Russia. Similarly, the Obama Administration adopted the European approach towards Israel and the Palestinians, sending Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looking east for new and less critical allies. In the end, if Western states continue their current approaches to the Middle East, they will be alienating themselves rather than being a positive influence on their allies.
Nearly 70 years ago, another nation native to the Levant was told it could not survive if it moved towards independence. The very countries that had initially supported the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Mandatory Palestine for decades bowed to the xenophobic and racist concerns of Arabs in the region by curbing Jewish immigration and suggesting the Jews cede more and more land to the Arabs. Despite the Jews accepting limitations on the land that could become their state, the establishment of a Jewish country continued to be delayed until the British occupiers were forced out. And despite the “experts” in the State Department adopting an anti-Israel approach and claiming that the new state could not survive continuous wars with its neighbors, the Jewish state survived against all odds to become the dominant power of the Middle East. Now, in 2017, the same “experts” on the region claim that Kurdish independence move would destabilize the Middle East and be unable to survive with hostile regimes in Tehran and Ankara. And for years, the Kurds have resisted secession, instead trying to cooperate with Baghdad and live as equals (with some degree of autonomy) within a united and “democratic” Iraq, to no avail. Just as the United States–a self-proclaimed steadfast ally to both Israel and Kurdistan–threw off the shackles of colonialism 241 years ago, the Kurds have the right to do so as well. And if progressive and Western countries support the right to self-determination of all peoples and are truly against imperialism in all forms, it would behoove them to support the referendum on independence.